Have Relaxed Admissions Standards Helped Minority Athletes?

Gerald S. Gurney’s provocative commentary in last week’s Chronicle criticized the relaxed initial-eligibility standards the NCAA put in place nearly eight years ago as ineffective in boosting the number of minority athletes who graduate from college.

Gurney, president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, argues that lower test-score standards, combined with high-school grade inflation, have led to greater numbers of academically unprepared athletes. Those students, Gurney writes, possess “inadequate skills to manage college academics, creating a greater need for academic-support services at institutions already struggling with strained budgets, staffs, and faculties.”

The new rules give minority athletes greater access to higher education by creating a sliding scale for grade-point averages and standardized-test scores, while abandoning a minimum requirement of a composite 17 on the ACT or 820 on the SAT. Since the change, which happened in 2003, only a slight increase has been realized in African-American participation in the Division I basketball and football, Gurney writes, even though in the four-year period leading up to 2003 reforms, there was a steady increase of minority participants who met the higher standards of a minimum test-score requirement.

After Gurney’s piece came out, John Infante, an assistant director of compliance at Colorado State University (and founder of the widely praised Bylaw Blog, one of the only reasons to visit the NCAA’s website) wrote a response, which The Chronicle published this week. He disagrees that the NCAA’s emphasis on core curriculum and GPA has failed to establish an acceptable baseline level of college preparedness.

Gurney dismisses as “manufactured” the Academic Progress Rate, a metric that Division I adopted in 2004 that assesses a student-athlete’s eligibility, retention, and progress toward graduation each academic term, Infante writes. But the impact of the APR on graduation rates won’t not be known until late 2011, when the graduation rates for the 2005-6 freshmen are calculated, he says.

In a letter to the editor to be published in next week’s Chronicle, Carolyn Callahan, the faculty athletics representative at the University of Virginia and chair of the NCAA Division I Academic Cabinet, says that since the 2003 changes were put into effect, average incoming profiles of student-athletes are equal to or higher than those at any time since 1994 when national data were first collected. NCAA athletes annually outperform their student-body counterparts in graduation rates, usually by several percentage points in almost all demographic categories.

And although there is only one year of graduation data related to the initial eligibility changes of 2003, the outcomes for the 2003 cohort are very promising, she says: Looking specifically at African-American student-athletes in the 2003 cohort, there were 400 more African-American student-athletes and 300 more African-American graduates compared to the  2002 (or any previous) cohort. In addition, the graduation success rate for African-American student-athletes increased significantly in men’s basketball (three points) and FBS football (five points).

If these trends continue, she says, “it will be difficult to argue that the 2003 reforms did not have exactly the impacts they were intended to have–to maximize graduation rates while minimizing adverse impacts on minority and low-income students.”

Of course, none of that diminishes the strain on academic services that many people say has come from the relaxed standards. As one commenter on Infante’s article put it, “I suggest that Mr. Infante ask his academic support people at CSU what they are finding and get to understand the impossible situation” they find themselves in.

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